ARGO – Le Movie Snob’s Take
Review by Barbara Snitzer
Argo is the best movie of the year- (so far).
Even though I knew the ending, I was still on the edge of my seat in suspense. That’s how good it is.
It was inevitable that a CIA operation about making a movie would become a movie itself. In the wrong hands, it could have been as bad as the fictional sci-fi movie “Argo” that was the cover for the clandestine operation.
Not only does Affleck have the directing chops, I think his achievement is partly due to his age. I am very close in age to Mr. Affleck, and I remember watching the Iranian hostage crisis unfold nightly on the news. I didn’t understand the history or politics that caused it (Affleck opens the film with an animated history lesson to bring everyone up to speed), but I remember its impact: the yellow ribbons, the daily count on the evening news, and the nightly updates from Ted Koppel that would become the newsmagazine “Nightline.”
Importantly, I remember how the world worked then: everything was on paper, documents were created by typewriters, phones had cords, TVs had only a few channels that had to be manually changed. In short, I remember the world that could pull off this operation.
This world existed in an era when science fiction movies still dominated the entertainment arena, three years after Star Wars had opened. Every television and movie producer were hellbent on replicating that movie’s success. Thus, prime time television (in addition to movies) had a disproportionate share of sci-fi imitators: Battlestar Gallactica, Buck Rogers, even Star Wars produced a Christmas special that starred Bea Arthur and Art Carney in 1978. I’m not kidding. In addition, many established shows like The Muppet Show, Fantasy Island, and the numerous variety shows jumped on the bandwagon. Although most of these productions were inferior, kids like myself and Mr. Affleck watched them anyway, and they were a formative aspect of our childhood.
I think this context is important to note: it makes the prospect of a making a science fiction movie in Iran not seem stupid or improbable. As it happens, the idea was credible to the Iranians as they were actively encouraging international business and were hungry for US dollars according to Joshuah Bearman who wrote about the operation in Wired in 2007.
Affleck nails the characters and physical details (the end credits display side by side the images of the real people and places next to those from the film. I dare you not to be impressed). His real-life character Tony Mendez said “it was just like being there again.”
While I was at the edge of my seat, I was wondering in the back of my mind how much dramatic license Affleck took. How faithful is it to the real story? This movie snob had to find out.
The answer is: enough.
The famous screenwriter William Goldman advised other screenwriters not to write real stories; real stories are never as believable as fiction. [Coincidentally (or not), a friend of mine who worked for an A-list Hollywood producer claimed Mr. Goldman had doctored most of the script for Good Will Hunting, the 1997 film for which Affleck shared an "undeserved" (per said friend) screenwriting Oscar.]
Affleck does his mentor proud. His deviations from the truth do not detract from the story at all. His changes intensify the drama, assist the pacing, and streamline the storytelling.
Spoiler Alert: If you want to see the movie without knowing too many details, stop reading here.
Bryan Cranston’s and Alan Arkin’s character are composites of several people. The staged reading at the Beverly Hilton never happened, it’s an opportunity for Affleck to laugh at Hollywood’s expense. It doesn’t detract at all from the movie and hopefully gives him closure on Gigli.
Affleck is very kind to the Canadians; it turns out many of the “bad” bad ideas were actually theirs. Mendez had three children not one, but the one in the film is named Ian in memory of Mendez’ late son and to whom the film is dedicated. He is shown in the photos on Affleck’s nightstand.
Affleck’s inspiration is depicted as occurring as he’s watching Planet of the Apes with his son. It is not made clear in the movie, but John Chambers, the make-up artist he contacts in Hollywood, actually won an Oscar for make-up forthat 1969 film.
The trapped Americans did not all stay at the Canadian Ambassador’s residence, only some of the group were housed there, and they had several temporary hideouts in between. They left the American Embassy in a heavy downpour that is not recreated in the movie.
The group’s tense visit to a crowded bazaar never really happened. And, as I suspected, the police cars on the runway were fiction as well.
During the closing credits, it is painful to learn Jimmy Carter could not brag about the success of this operation when a subsequent attempt failed tragically and contributed to his losing the presidency.
As a celebrity, Affleck has been very politically active, but shows a similar restraint by not making a political statement with this movie. He very efficiently tells an intriguing story. However, any informed audience member will be hard-pressed not to compare the events of this film with the current tensions that exist between the U.S and Iran that date back to the time depicted.
Before you bemoan an era gone by, where nations could could cooperate on covert operations such as this, you might be interested to learn that several hours before the movie’s premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, the Canadian government closed its embassy in Tehran, ordered all Iranian diplomats to leave Canada, and ceased all relations between Canada and Tehran.
5 of 5 Stars
Read more of Barbara’s reviews at Le Movie Snob